UK CONCRETE CRISIS – WHAT’S GOING ON?
Over 150 schools and possibly more are facing closure in the United Kingdom due to Reinforced Autoclaves Aerated Concrete (RAAC), a type of concrete that was a widely used building material across the nation between the 1950s and 1990s.
Some schools have had to completely close while others are dealing with partial closures, affecting hundreds of students across the country just as the new school year starts. The closures come after fears that the buildings could suddenly collapse.
Property and construction expert Thomas Goodman at MyJobQuote.co.uk explains what RAAC is, why it is unsafe, and what can potentially be done about it.
What Is RAAC?
RAAC is a type of concrete that was widely used as a constructed material during the late 1900s. Invented in the 1930s, this material includes cement, lime and sand heated to 200 degrees Celsius under high pressure – a process known as autoclaving. Aluminium flakes were added to the mix before autoclaving to produce hydrogen through a reaction process with the lime. This then forms air bubbles in the material, making it more lightweight than traditional concrete. This resulted in lower costs and was considered easier to use than the heavier traditional concrete.
Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete is an aerated lightweight material without coarse aggregate. The properties and structural behaviours of this material differ significantly when compared to traditional reinforced concrete. There are many buildings, including schools, that still exist and are made using RAAC. The vast majority of structures that exist today with RAAC have the material prevalent in the roof structure, which is usually flat and difficult to inspect, maintain, and replace.
Why Is RAAC Now Considered Unsafe?
In 2018, an RAAC roof panel in a school collapsed suddenly without any prior warning signs. Since then, there have been several other RAAC collapses where the material seemed to be in good condition.
RAAC requires a certain extent of design considerations and proper engineering. Without these, the structure can become unstable, potentially resulting in building failures and collapses. This can be catastrophic for the building and may cause serious or even fatal injuries.
The material can also be susceptible to moisture issues. This can include things such as mould growth and deterioration if it has not been properly waterproofed or maintained. Improper installation can also lead to structural weaknesses or other issues that may not be visible or easy to detect.
When RAAC shifts or collapses, this could also disturb any materials containing asbestos. The majority of UK schools contain asbestos, unfortunately. When asbestos fibres are released into the air and breathed in, this could cause breathing problems and may result in serious illnesses later in life.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine when RAAC is on the brink of a collapse as there seem to be no warning signs beforehand. This is why many schools have had to close their doors for the safety of children and staff members.
What Can Be Done to Keep RAAC-Containing Buildings Safe?
At this time, we all need reassurance that all buildings, including schools, containing RAAC are deemed safe for the people using them. It’s also essential right now to identify where RAAC is located, determine its structural integrity, and learn how to determine when it may be a danger.
When RAAC issues are reported, they must be dealt with immediately. The government needs to step in urgently to provide assistance whenever RAAC is identified in a building and deemed a potential risk to the people using the building.
It is completely unacceptable to expect school staff members to be tasked with identifying RAAC and the dangers since their expertise does not reflect this type of subject. Now is the time for proper checks by structural engineers in schools across the country where RAAC is suspected.
Whenever structural work is required, the government should be expected to provide funding for temporary learning conditions. This is not something that should come out of school budgets.
Last month, the Department of Education issued fresh guidance on RAAC, providing advice on how to recognise the material and explaining the risks. It also provides advice on appointing a structural engineer or surveyor. This could be vital for those in schools as it will help them recognise RAAC earlier and detect any potential issues before they become a danger.
What Is the Government Doing to Keep School Buildings Safe?
According to the government’s website, £15 billion has been spent on keeping schools safe since 2015, with a further £1.8 billion committed for 2023-24.
The government has also confirmed that it is working on identifying and rectifying schools that may have RAAC in their structural elements. There have been over 200 assessments so far of schools where RAAC is suspected. These assessments aim to identify and verify the presence of the material as well as assess the condition. The government has also confirmed that they are on track to complete 600 assessments by Autumn. RAAC has been identified in 65 schools so far, with 24 of them requiring immediate action.
In its submission for the 2020 Spending Review, the department stated that it needed £5.3 billion per year of capital funding for maintaining schools and mitigating any serious risks. Due to the length of time that it would take the department to expand the school rebuilding programme, it requested an average of £4 billion per year between 2021 and 2025. However, the Treasury has allocated an average of £3.1 billion, leading to bodies such as local authorities and academy trusts using limited funding on the most urgent issues.
The government’s education hub issued a release last week explaining the problems and highlighting what to expect moving forward. They have also provided a list of all of the schools affected by closures at this time. According to the release, the government plans to “spend whatever it takes to keep children safe.”
How to Find Out if Your Child’s School Has Been Surveyed For RAAC
It’s normal for parents to be worried about their children going into school with the potential dangers of RAAC. If you’re unsure if your child’s school has been surveyed, it’s best to contact the school directly.
According to the government’s education hub release, in the coming weeks, they will have surveyed and agreed mitigation plans with 95% of schools in the UK. Currently, two-thirds of the schools with suspected RAAC materials have not had a proper survey in the past.
At the moment, the government expects the number of schools affected to be in the hundreds, not the thousands. This means that over 95% of schools will be completely unaffected by this crisis.
Please credit construction expert Thomas Goodman at MyJobQuote.co.uk